If your struggling to grow, we’re going to cover some common muscle building mistakes you might be making and how to avoid them.
In a previous article, we talked about the basics of building muscle (1).
I recommend that you head there first and recap. We’re about to dive in a little deeper.
Mistake #1: Not Having a (good) Plan
There are countless hypertrophy training plans available online for free these days. I would encourage you to do your homework and find a reliable source for your hypertrophy programming.
Ask yourself, if the program is for natural or chemically enhanced lifters?
Can you invest the time, energy and cost to stick to the program? Do you understand what is involved in the process?
That’s one of the problems with taking advice from many sources. It’s usually very general advice. It might be good, and it might not be good advice.
But it doesn’t always consider your unique set of circumstances. Variables outside of the training piece altogether.
We all have different schedules, time constraints, and obligations that we’re fitting in. Not to mention that everyone has varying dietary preferences and different intrinsic motivators, too (2).
Your program needs to account for all these factors above all else. Before it factors in any specific set-rep scheme, weekly frequency, or any advanced bicep blasting protocols. A good plan means nothing if it can’t be executed consistently.
What Else Makes a Good Plan?
The principles that underpin how we build muscle have been long established. Science has given us some reliable rules to follow if our goal is hypertrophy.
Chief among them are specificity, overload, and managing fatigue (3).
How many sets and reps should we do? How much weight? What exercises and how do we recover? The answers can all be informed by these fundamental principles.
Specificity: The specific training adaptations you want have specific training requirements. Specificity guides the direction of our training, and toggles the application of all the other principles.
Overload: Training needs to be hard enough to disrupt homeostasis. Greater recoverable stressors need to be progressively applied to improve.
Fatigue Management: Strategies that facilitate system recovery, performance improvement and maintenance of health.
There are more. But for the sake of simplification, we’ve focused on these three main ones they will provide the bulk of your…
A training program that doesn’t adhere to these principles in some way will not produce the desired outcome of more muscle.
Mistake # 2: Not Using Machines
Wait a minute! Before you go hurling your Tupperware lids across the gym floor in fury, hear me out.
Most of your training for size should emphasise compound movements using free-weights.
On average, free-weights activate more fibres, more muscle groups, and create more disruption. Those are all important if your goal is to get bigger.
Not to mention, learning to move your body through space, under load produces slightly better functional outcomes.
However, a huge mistake that I see is that people will often avoid machine use altogether. Or, not using them in the appropriate context to reap the unique benefits they can offer hypertrophy programming.
So, let’s look at where machine-based training can be helpful:
a) Machines can be a great option for beginners. Plenty of initial overload at a lower learning curve. An excellent way to get some quick success, gather momentum without as much technical error getting in the way. There are obvious safety implications associated with this too.
The guided mechanics of machines allow the lifter to push into higher volume thresholds. Without leaking force production due to instability, which can be beneficial for new lifters.
This was shown in a recent study where lifters grew more using machine-based squats compared to free weights (4).
For new lifters, the ability to produce large relative force is typically going to be lower. There are neural factors that play a major role in this. For beginners, the brain-muscle wiring is not so fine-tuned yet and so muscle activation will be lower. As such, new lifters may struggle with being able to produce force levels that offer enough of an overload stimulus.
This is why machine use in the early stages can be a big advantage for building muscle.
b) The more experienced lifter can also benefit from machine use in several ways. Most notably, they’re a great way to add a very targeted training volume. Advanced lifters tend to also gather far more CNS fatigue (5) for a given workload. Fatigue management needs to be a higher priority for this population.
Machines offer a unique alternative in this respect. By being able to train hard with a slightly lower system load. Think of the differences between a barbell back squat vs a seated leg press machine, for example. The back squat will use a lot more of the bodies resources by challenging more musculature.
Machines can also be useful for offloading the joint systems once in a while though a maintenance phase.
c) The biggest benefit that I see, however, lies in the principle of conservation of variation (6).
As it relates to machine-based training, this mostly applies to new lifters with little to no experience in the gym.
Essentially, if you’re new to training it can be helpful to base some of your training around machine-based activities. At least, in the beginning. Be sure to still emphasise compound movements, overload and fatigue management strategies.
For all the reasons noted above. But also, to preserve all of the more complex variations you have to progress towards later on.
Many of the early adaptations you’ll experience will be neural, before you start developing in size and strength. You could conceivably only use the exercises for the entire beginner stage of your lifting.
It makes sense to not exhaust some of the full growth potential out of those bigger, free-weight movements. Not until you’ve squeezed all you could out of those initial machine-based exercises.
Essentially, you’re drawing out the progression continuum for as long as you’re able. To have unused alternatives ready to go for maximum muscle-building effect (7).
Because as we know, the longer one has been training, it can be much harder to stimulate new growth. Since the body will at this point have become so well adapted to the full menu of exercises. Also, as you get bigger and stronger, your workouts are going to generate more CNS fatigue to have to overcome.
It should also be noted, that this is perhaps not an approach that will give you the biggest gains, the fastest. This is more for the patient, far-sighted lifter. The lifter that is willing to invest in the long-term goal of gaining muscle for a long time to come.
Mistake #3: Too Much Exercise Variation
No, you don’t need to shock or confuse your muscles to stimulate more growth. The need to vary exercises every other workout or even each month has no sound scientific basis.
In fact, as we’ve already noted exercise variation is very low on the priority list of mechanisms that contribute to making mass.
What’s needed most is a consistent, progressive overload. We achieve this through routine and repetition, not randomness.
It’s recommended to spend between 1-3 training blocks with a given set of exercises for the best effect. This allows for plenty of repetition to ingrain the movement pattern and stress the particular muscle fibres that the exercise targets. It also allows for time to build training volume and incremental overload.
More importantly, it builds momentum. Enough, progress that when you finally swap the exercises out, your gains will stick around a lot longer afterwards.
One of the main problems with changing exercises too early is that you’ll short-circuit the entire process. Which will greatly reduce your potential muscle-building progress.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways that this can happen:
It is true that over a few weeks, your progress on a particular set of exercises will begin to slow down. This can happen for a few reasons, mostly related to fatigue management. But, accounting for fatigue this is most often due to the repeated bout effect (8).
This is where after a while, you’ll notice the exercises get a little easier and you’re a little less sore.
What does that mean? Well, our bodies are adept at adapting to repetitive inputs. With enough consistency of proper overload, we experience neural and tissue adaptations. These are a protective response, to guard against future stressors.
After a couple of weeks, your body will have become more efficient at the movement and more tolerant of the load. Which is great, co-ordination is better, you’ve gotten stronger and built some more contractile tissue. Winning!
After those initial few weeks, however, that upwards curve will begin to straighten. You’re now entering an acute stage of what’s known as adaptive resistance. As a result, the workouts may no longer produce the overload that’s needed and progress slows.
In this case, it doesn’t mean that’s it now time to choose other exercise variations. At this point, there’s still some progress to be had on the exercises you’ve got. Even a couple of weeks into a program, they’re still a relatively new stimulus with high-growth potential.
Consider what it’s like when you perform a new exercise or haven’t done an exercise for a while?
It feels a little awkward and unstable, right?
It’ll a take a couple of weeks or a couple of attempts to find your ‘neural groove’ with that exercise. Then, you’ll finally be able to push the intensity once your body and brain have figured out how to sync up.
Switching lifts one cycle in when you’ve just become accustomed to the movement is not the best idea.
Yet, it’s a mistake a lot of lifters make which can limit results.
Every exercise over time engrains a particular motor-pattern and distinctly uses particular fibres. Switching to another exercise will tax different fibres of the muscle. It’ll also require a slightly different motor skill. When exercise variation is used to frequently, you’re almost starting the process all over again. You won’t be able to build enough volume overload. As a result, you’re likely not exhausting the full progress potential out of the exercise you initially chose.
A month or so is too short a time frame to drive the overload and volume accumulations that we need. You’ll get some, but it’s more likely that between 1-3 cycles will create far more cumulative progress.
Not only that, but you’ll retain more of that progress after you’ve swapped out those exercises. And you should only do that after you’ve exhausted all the growth you’re going to get from the lifts you started the program with.
So, what do we do?
It’s better to manipulate a few of the smaller training variables and continue riding the momentum you’ve got going. Other variables include the number of sets and reps that you do, the load that use, grip width, and repetition tempo to name a few.
Switching up one or a few of these will provide all the variation you need during these early stages of a program. Without the risk of causing too much of a disruption to the directed adaptations you’ve been working towards.
Rinse and repeat for each training cycle. Until you’ve well and truly hit that stale spot where no further gains are being made on those lifts. This is usually by the third mesocycle or month.
a) Another problem with frequent exercise swapping is that you’ll be creating excessive muscle damage and soreness. There won’t be enough repetition for you to adapt and every workout will seem like a new stimulus. While some soreness is a good thing, you don’t want it so bad that it reduces the effectiveness of successive workouts. Or, to the point where most of your recovery resources are spent overcoming the previous session’s inroads, and not on growth.
b) Another consideration is, how do you properly track progress from one workout to another if you’re always using new lifts? How can you tell if you’re able to do more reps, sets or add weight? There’s no real way of determining productive overload to ensure you’re building and not simply exerting yourself without aim.
Mistake #4: Too Little Exercise Variation
Some variation is a positive so long as it’s used wisely and not at the expense of properly applying other more important principles.
Like a lot of things, however, sitting at the extremes of any application will likely yield less than ideal results.
So, counter to everything we’ve discussed already, some people swim at the shallow end of the variation pool. As in, they have favourite movements and have established a routine, never deviating in any way from that.
a) An obvious example of too little variation is when a lifter never introduces other exercise variations. The concern with this approach is that after a couple of phases, you’ll be deep into an adaptive resistance. You’ll see very little if anything in the way of meaningful progress. Your response to training has simply become stale with nothing to show for your continued efforts.
This is a kind of training limbo. A purgatory of slow gains, and unfortunately where many lifters stay embroiled for too long.
b) Another example is when a lifter uses every exercise variation possible within a program.
The suggestion is that doing every exercise and hitting the muscle from different angles results in more complete development.
The problem here is that when that training staleness hits, you’ll have already used up every variant available. There won’t be any new alternatives to introduce into the program to spark a fresh spike in growth. You’ll want some unused, high return exercises ready to bring in. Variants that you’ll be highly sensitive to and that continue to develop the same or similar qualities the previous exercise did.
This speaks again to the principle of Conservation of Variation.
c) Another issue filling your program this way is that you may end with too much overlap. Too many exercises that target the same thing can be an unnecessary drain on recoverability for little to no extra benefit. That means energy that could be used for building is being spent on first recovering back to baseline.
d) Further on that, if you’re trying to improve everything at once, you’ll end up not quite improving anything as well as you could with more dedicated phases. Do you remove some lower body exercises to give the upper body some more airplay? Do you spend a mesocycle focusing only on bringing up the lagging hamstring group and forgo all other training in the meantime? It’s up to the individual in this case to determine what trade-offs they’re happy to work with.
The point is that the body will adapt, and some strategic change will be necessary.
A program without change, is a program without focus.
Perhaps the most important aspect of variation scarcity is injury risk. Using alternative movements every few mesocycles gives the connective tissue you’ve been targeting an opportunity to heal and re-sensitise. Continually stressing the same tissues in the same directions for too long can contribute to overuse issues. This includes muscle, ligaments, tendons, and joint systems. It should be remembered that chronicity of strain can also be detrimental in the long term. It’s not solely about too heavy.
Mistake #5: Not Varying Rep Ranges
A common misconception in lifting circles is the idea that you need to lift hard and heavy to build muscle. The myth has circulated long as I can remember that heavy weights are better for size and strength, while lighter weights helped you ‘tone’ more.
In recent times, the research has shown this to only half true. The body of evidence is growing that demonstrates hypertrophy can be achieved on a variety of loads, both heavy and light (9,10).
The linchpin, however, is that it still needs to be hard.
Sets need to be pushed to approximately at least four repetitions within concentric muscular failure. Working Sets performed between approximately 30-80% 1RM appear to result in similar hypertrophy gains.
In addition, research has demonstrated that heavier weights can be performed closer to failure, whereas lighter loads at approximately 10-12 RM loads perform best when stopping a few repetitions shy of failure. It has been shown that low loads at higher volume sets with reps to spare tend to produce more fatigue than heavier loads to failure (11).
This further highlights the value and importance of understanding and our key principles of specificity, overload, and fatigue management.
It also provides us with a variety of loading options to work with so that we can avoid training becoming stale and results grinding to a halt.
It is my hope that with this post that you’ve been able to finally identify some potential mistakes you’ve been making. These are some of the more common problems that I see when someone is having a difficult time gaining muscle. Put these tips to use and launch your training progress to soaring new heights. Far and away beyond the bounds of the dreaded training plateau.
- The basics of building muscle by Danny James (link)
- Myofibrillar protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy individualized responses to systematically changing resistance training variables in trained young men. Damas, et al. 2019
- Scientific principles of strength training by Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffmann and Chad Wesley Smith
- A Comparison of machine versus free-weight squats for the enhancement of lower-body power, speed, and change-of-direction ability during an initial training phase of recreationally-active women. Schwarz, et al. 2019
- Squats, muscle damage and recovery by Danny James (link)
- Avoid training Plateaus with the right amount of variation by Danny James (link)
- Strike first and strike hard by Danny James (link)
- Repeated bout effect: Research update and future perspective. Nosaka & Aoki, 2011
- Muscle fibre activation is unaffected by load and repetition duration when resistance exercise is performed to task failure. Morton, et al. 2019
- Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low- vs. high-load resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Schoenfeld, et al. 2017
- When Best to Fail by Danny James (link)
Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Danny works with some of Australia’s fastest youth track and field athletes, and has been featured on StrengthCoach.com.
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